A Journey to the End of Taste

celineI am reading, and very much enjoying, this little book about Celine Dion.  It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of books about single albums (link is to the series blog), which is pretty awesome — for a retired record collector, the books (each of which is pocket sized and featuring the album’s cover on its cover) recall a little of the fetishistic pleasure of buying the record itself.

I previously read the edition on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, which was great, but mostly in a sort of “extended Rolling Stone article” sort of way (great stories and interviews about the album’s creation, etc.).  This one is a little deeper than that — it’s written by a self-confessed music snob (a music critic named Carl Wilson) who grew up in Canada, and who therefore hated Celine Dion above all else, and it represents his effort to explore and better understand an artist who is both hugely, hugely popular, and also widely despised.  He traces her roots in a particular French Canadian “chanson” tradition, and speculates that one reason she is so hated (more, for example, than certain equally cheesy African-American singers) is that it is so difficult to locate her in any sort of well-understood musical tradition that it makes her seem all the phonier.  This is a topic that holds great interest for me, because I was raised in a snobby indie rock musical tradition, and worked for a college radio station where you would get in trouble for playing records that were on major labels, etc.  Anyhow I have always taken great pleasure in certain Top 40 hits, while truly despising others, including Celine, so I’ve spent some time puzzling over the question of what value there is in my snobby view, if so many millions disagree with me.  (One of my fondest classroom memories from college is the graduate seminar on Popular Music where the professor spent a 2-hour session purporting to demonstrate, objectively, why “Sweet Caroline” was so horrible and tasteless.) 

I’m not done yet, so I don’t know yet if Wilson comes to any significant conclusions, but it’s great poolside reading in any case.  I’ll also note, without comment, that James Franco somewhat mysteriously name-dropped this book on the Oscars red carpet earlier this year.

Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment

One of my favorite possessions is a replica Sears Roebuck catalog from exactly 100 years ago. For a great many rural Americans at the time, the Sears catalog was the only access to goods outside of their local general store and, as a result, the catalog – sometimes called ‘The Consumer’s Bible’- contains basically every commercial product under the sun and thereby provides an inventory of everything that the average American of the time could have possibly thought of to own. You can buy a violin. You can buy a gun. You can buy a cure for baldness. You can buy records with racist ‘humor’ songs on them. For several hundred dollars, you can buy an unassembled two-storey house– as in, Sears delivers all the materials and some plans, and you put the thing together.


You can also buy this baffling Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment that promises to make ‘a regular railroad velocipede out of an ordinary bicycle’. I like how the product is meticulously described – all the features, portability, popular with men and women, handsome black enamel – except for the key detail of what you are supposed to do when a train comes barreling down on you from behind, which is left totally unexplained.

Another nice thing about the catalog in general is that it predates the era of product photography. I don’t know whether it was too expensive to shoot all the products, or if the halftone screen wasn’t far enough along to allow for mass printing of photos in 1909, but in any case, the book contains thousands upon thousands of etchings of household items. One can only imagine the army of commercial etchers who must have been scratching away morning, noon and night to produce all this imagery.

Why the short blog posts

0876853904.01.LZZZZZZZThere’s a chapter of Charles Bukowski’s Women that opens with this:

I began receiving letters from a girl in New York City. Her name was Mindy. She had run across a couple of my books, but the best thing about her letters was that she seldom …mentioned writing except to say that she was not a writer…
Most people are much better at saying things in letters than in conversation, and some people can write artistic, inventive letters, but when they try a poem or story or novel they become pretentious.

I began receiving letters from a girl in New York City. Her name was Mindy. She had run across a couple of my books, but the best thing about her letters was that she seldom mentioned writing except to say that she was not a writer.


Most people are much better at saying things in letters than in conversation, and some people can write artistic, inventive letters, but when they try a poem or story or novel they become pretentious.

Maybe this is especially true nowadays with email. Email is closer to the exact mid-point between conversation and writing than traditional letter-writing in my experience (writing a letter by hand always seemed to morph into a labored literary exercise for me, despite my efforts to keep it light and conversational). At its best moments, email can produce a kind of resonance that’s rarely present in conversation and entirely absent from the labored writing of those of us who are not good writers.

I find that with any creative undertaking – be it writing, design, or something else entirely – the key is in finding a context that removes this weighty sense of trying, the self-consciousness that makes the process labored and ultimately un-fun. I had a drawing teacher who, for the first five weeks or so of the course, would only allow you to draw for 10 or 20 seconds at a time before stopping you. His intent was to isolate the initial sense of possibility and fun that exists in the first few moments of drawing before the labored feeling of “Oh no, I’m creating a drawing… what should I do next?” quickly kicks in. His idea was that once you’re able to isolate this first sensation from the second, hopefully you’re gradually able to carry it further into the process and delay the onset of the second. I think he was definitely onto something, although his manner of teaching it was admittedly frustrating at first.

Guns and books


Another interesting ‘micro-climate’ of poster design was in Cuba. As was the case in Poland, there was a strong national idiom and an elevated regard for the poster compared to more industrialized parts of the world. Unlike Poland, though, where poster art was nationalized and state-run, the Cuban posters were more of an agi-prop, do-it-yourself proposition.

Two interesting motifs that appear a lot: guns and books. Artists seems to find an inexhaustible supply of imaginative presentations for the former in particular. I would never have imagined that a poster featuring a sunset composed of receding rifles in romantic hues would fly, but there it is. Also, the gun-plus-book-together image is pretty striking in terms of how visually logical the partnership seems in retrospect. Finally, just for fun, here’s a poster likening the lot of the Cuban farm worker with her Vietnamese commie brethren– very striking contrast between black-and-white vs. color that, again, would seem difficult to pull off in concept but works very naturally here.


Top: Rene Mederos. Bottom, left to right: Arturo Alfonso Palomino, Fausino Perez, and Mederos again.

Images taken from ¡Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art by Lincoln Cushing– more images and ordering info here.

The midget folio

This is a book I once saw in the rare books room of the San Francisco Library called Quads Within Quads. It was published by an oddball British printer named Andrew W. Tuer in 1884 and contains a collection of jokes about printing.

The jokes about printing that I am capable of understanding are generally pretty corny and hard to explain and not really worth the effort of explaining anyway. Take, for example, the left-hand page pictured below: you see a caption THE NEW STEAM COMPOSITOR under a robotic figure of someone standing at a weird kind of table. The joke is that steam-powered presses had been introduced earlier in the century to speed up the printing process; compositing, meanwhile, was the thankless task of assembling metal type by hand (thus, the weird table which held the type); therefore, one expects to see some sort of newly-invented machine that automates the task of compositing but instead sees a compositing automaton. Get it? No? OK, let’s just move on…

The great thing about Quads Within Quads is that it was printed with a square section cut out from the middle pages, like where you might hide a bottle of whiskey or a roll of microfilm. So, what’s placed in the cut-away square section? A miniaturized version of the same book. Apparently, this is called a ‘midget folio’ (when you produce a mini-version of a larger book). I was a little disappointed to learn that the miniaturized version does not itself contain an even smaller version, and so on and so forth like Russian dolls.

Quads Within Quads


Top photo: both versions together. Lower photo: zoom-in on midget folio.

Warehouse of lost stuff

jest1221365735In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the main character has an attack of existential dread where he envisions a giant room containing all the food he will ever eat in his life (it’s basically a visualization of the fact that we’re all organic, decaying, mortal creatures on this earth, etc etc.)

I prefer a breezier version of this idea. I think each of us is haunted by the memory of a prized possession that we somehow lost or even gave away in moment of crazed misjudgment. My list includes, among other things, a few choice and irreplaceable cassette tapes (tapes always seemed expressly designed to break your heart by either getting lost or getting eaten) and several items of clothing, some old drawings, a few vinyls, and so forth. I like the idea of a giant warehouse that contains everything you’ve ever lost or regrettably given away. You have 30 minutes to root through the warehouse and take with you anything you can find. But, the challenge lies in rooting out the prized possessions from all the piles of random junk that you didn’t care about then and don’t care about now. The most pernicious thing would be the temptation to yield to distraction– imagine all the crazy random mementos you would stumble on, and how hard it would be to keep focused on your laundry list of a few prized items that you’re intent on finding.

Now and then

Last week, I was lamenting the prudishness of this blog, its lack of sexual content, and the torrent of web traffic and popular acclaim that that’s no doubt cost me. Well, those days are over. Via the New Yorker (OK, still kind of prudish) comes this fantastic comparison of the drawings in the original 1972 Joy of Sex with the newfangled versions released in the new “ultimate revised edition.”


If you’re an American aged 30-40, you at some point stumbled as a child onto the original book in a friend’s parents’ book shelf, whereupon the illustrations instantly became lasered into your brain for the rest of eternity. If you’re of this demographic, it’s a little jarring to see the new drawings.

Of the four participants, Seventies Woman is definitely my favorite. Seventies Man looks, in the words of the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy, “like a werewolf with a hangover”. Meanwhile, Modern Woman and Man have this weird antiseptic progressive quality that I associate with episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation when they beam down to some planet where there’s a blandly utopian, futuristic human community living. Ho hum. One can only draw worrisome conclusions about where we’re headed as a culture.

The New Moscow Philosophy

Here’s the other book cover I’ve made for Twisted Spoon in the past year (first one is here): Vyachelsav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy. This one should be going to print some time over the summer.

New Moscow Philosophy

A bunch of Moscovites live crammed together in a flat originally intended for a single family during more prosperous times. When one elderly tenant mysteriously disappears, the residents start jockeying over her living space. The apartment itself is presented as the the dominant character of the story in a sense (the author introduces you to it before any of the characters, and its crowded conditions define the experience of most of the characters), so it seemed to make sense to feature it on the cover as the ‘protagonist’. The disappearance of the elderly tenant, moreover, is turned into a kind of meta-absurdist whodunnit, with conscious literary references to Crime and Punishment. So, hence, the ‘Colonel Mustard did it in the study with the revolver’ aspect of the design.

I’ve always had a fetish of sorts for floorplans, so it was fun to do a design around one. I only hope that I got the layout of the flat more or less correct– it was difficult to figure out on paper, nonwithstanding the author’s meticulous descriptions of which room is where.

Nerd Time: The Leopard Seal

UntitledA few years ago, I got really into reading accounts of extreme adventures and explorations. There’s something comforting about sitting in the warmth of your living room while other people haplessly freeze to death, fall of cliffs, catch on fire, have their still-beating hearts removed by Mayan priests, or  get half-digested in a the stomach of a whale and emerge bleached and peevish.

During this time, I read two accounts of the Shacktelton expedition. Basically, Shackleton and his mates head off from the south pole, but their boat gets frozen in ice in the Weddell Sea, effectively trapping them for 6 months of dark Antarctic winter.  Adorably, they actually stage puppet shows and stuff like that in order to maintain their sanity. Eventually, the ship is crushed by ice and the crew is forced to float around on giant ice bergs for months trying to sail their way out of the sea to land.

All sorts of terrible stuff happens, but one thing that was really a head-scratcher for me was the frequent account of attacks by Leopard Seals. Leopard Seals? Apparently, this is a species of carnivorous seal specific to the Antarctic. Shackleton and his crew are constantly trying to drift off to sleep on their flying ice floe when this leopard seal thing clambers out of the sea and starts attacking them. Apparently, it’s a worst-of-both-words proposition, in the sense that the Leopard Seal is dangerous (like a non-seal) but totally fatty and non-nutritious (like a seal). So, once they kill it, there’s still nothing in it for the beleaguered crew

All this makes for a good scenario to re-enact with guests as an after-dinner game. Just commandeer a few sofa cushions to use as ice floes.

(Above: real Leopard Seal cranium. Eek.)